Review of Bohemians: A Graphic History

Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente reviews Bohemians: A Graphic History (Verso, 2014).

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Bohemians encompasses numerous forms of art.

In Bohemians: A Graphic History (2014), Paul Buhle, David Berger, and Luisa Cetti help a dozen artists bring to life an impressive cast of historical characters who lived on the margins of mainstream society while pushing the creative boundaries of diverse forms of art.[1] Covering the earliest beginnings of bohemianism in the mid-nineteenth century to the early 1960s, the graphic novel sketches the lives and travails of well-known figures like Walt Whitman and Josephine Baker to less familiar ones such as the nineteenth-century writer and actress Ada Clare and the Harlem Renaissance-era dancer Howard “Stretch” Johnson. As a reminder, Erstwhile’s Graphic Histories review series follows a three-part formula evaluating the work’s art, use of history, and applicability for the classroom.

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Walt Whitman is a natural fit for Bohemians.

With such a diverse cast of characters across a century of (mostly) American life, the artwork is appropriately varied. The creativity of so many different artists compiled into a single, overarching story reflects the range of bohemians—whether painters, photographers, dancers, musicians, or actors—the book treats. The resulting changes of style come across less as uneven than as a kaleidoscopic montage. Bohemianism, the book argues, has always been an expansive, eclectic lifestyle more than it has been a unified and conscious movement. The artwork captures those rich and varied textures. Though the Harlem Renaissance is largely circumscribed to the story of writer Claude McKay, it does offer the comic artists a brief opportunity to invoke the inventive styles of a wider cast of Black artists, such as Aaron Douglas.

As with many graphic histories, however, the book sometimes suffers from an overemphasis on explanatory text and exposition. This is especially true because of the format of treating so many historical figures. Rather than having the entire book to get to know and explore the life of a single person—as with the recent Buhle project Eugene V. Debs (2019), for instance—Bohemians surveys the lives of several dozen artists and activists. Depending on the length of the story, then, the treatment can feel perfunctory or the panels can be overcrowded with text instead of giving the artwork room to breathe. The book is at its most effective when it lets the art show the history and incorporate the bohemian’s thought or style into the panels and the movement of the story. Conceiving this graphic history as an accessible introduction to its multi-faceted characters—piquing the interest of casual readers and urging them to delve more deeply into individual figures—might have alleviated some of the text-heavy exposition.

 

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The comic artists of Bohemians tend to use space best when addressing art-as-movement.

Despite the sometimes abundant text, the overarching history of Bohemians feels somewhat incomplete. The book begins by sketching the origins of bohemianism in mid-nineteenth-century Paris and New York and touches in a very cursory way on the relationship between utopian socialism and free love in the 1850s. The book neglects the radical thinking of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, which connects most of these early cultural rebels. Bohemians begins with the French painter Gustave Courbet in Paris and crosses the Atlantic to Pfaff’s saloon and the urban communitarian experiment of the Unitary Household in New York.[2] All of these figures and spaces developed under the influence of (an admittedly diluted) Fourierism, the highlighting of which would have strengthened the clear cultural ties among these early radical experiments. Presented as they are in isolation, one is left with the vague sense of a wider transatlantic cultural moment without seeing the connections clearly. One also wonders about the absence of a proto-bohemian figure such as the French poet Charles Baudelaire, active at the same time as Courbet, whom Bohemians does treat. Baudelaire’s poetical subject and invention the flâneur wanders urban spaces, rejecting the strictures of the disciplined work ethic of the bourgeoisie as well as bourgeois sexual morality—both precursors to much of the bohemian ethos.

The rejection of the stuffy and constricting Victorian culture drove bohemianism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in many respects the high tide of the phenomenon. While Bohemians does little to acknowledge this motivation, the book does give Greenwich Village its due.[3] Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde bridge the gap from the mid-century origins of bohemianism to its turn-of-the-century flourishing. A lengthy treatment of the photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz shows his role in introducing modern art to (and shocking) many Americans with the famous 1913 Armory Show, which brought works of Degas, Cézanne, Matisse, Gaugin and many others both European and American together in New York. The interwar period brings the reader to the American ex-pat community in Paris and the Harlem Renaissance. Claude McKay and Josephine Baker come to stand in for the latter, with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston making brief appearances. A fuller picture of this array of cultural heroes would have allowed the creators to do more than briefly allude to the innovative styles of the period. A later story pairing the careers of dancers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus emphasizes the role of Black artists in researching their African roots and applying African cultural styles to modern American dance; their lives and work also connect the narrative to the latter half of the twentieth century.

An account of Woody Guthrie’s life similarly serves as a bridge between interwar radicalism and the new bohemians of the 1950s and the early Civil Rights Movement, while also locating the story beyond New York. However, San Francisco and the renewed bohemian flourishing of the 1960s counterculture are curiously absent from Bohemians. Buhle’s introduction explains that their inclusion would have rendered the book unwieldy and that the Beats had already received treatment in a separate volume he oversaw. Yet their absence ultimately makes Bohemians feel incomplete, and it consequently ends rather abruptly.

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The 1913 Armory Show gets its due when Bohemians examines the work of Alfred Stieglitz.

As a classroom tool, Bohemians could prove generative. It is thematically rich even while being a little clunky as history. It addresses bohemians’ pioneering roles in various types of art, their embrace of sexual freedom, and their dabbling in radical political movements. The broad view the book takes to its subject matter across numerous decades certainly lends itself to an introductory survey course, adding an important element of cultural history to a course that can often be overly focused on political and social developments.

 


[1] Buhle, a retired professor of history, seems to have undertaken a second career shepherding a line of graphic novels treating historical subjects through the presses at Verso and elsewhere. A partial list of these publications includes: Wobblies! (2005), reviewed by Erstwhile; the Bohemians companion The Beats (2010); Red Rosa (2015), reviewed by Erstwhile; Eugene V. Debs (2019); and the forthcoming Paul Robeson.

[2] Mark A. Lause’s The Antebellum Crisis and America’s First Bohemians (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009) provides a monograph-length analysis of Pfaff’s saloon as an early space of bohemianism. On Courbet’s interest in Fourierism, see T.J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

[3] Christine Stansell makes the argument about the bohemian reaction to Victorianism in American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). Many of her subjects, from Mabel Dodge to Randolph Bourne, make appearances in Bohemians, as well.

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